Sunday, November 02, 2008

Dubya's cultural legacy

A fascinating article in the Guardian last week on Americans’ perceptions of the Dubya legacy. There’s a similar piece in the Observer today as well, and it’s fair to say that Dubya is not coming out of it well. The worst American President in history seems to be the general consensus.

There are some excellent observations in the Guardian piece, though. The common view seems to be that there are no positive aspects to the cultural legacy left by Bush’s regime, but plenty of negative ones. There is a strange degree of pessimism around this – surely, you’d have thought, we are now seeing the end days, and idealism should be bubbling forth again, as it did for those of us in Britain in 1997 – but the resentment of Dubya’s philistinism runs deep.

DJ Spoony sums up the mood when he says, ‘The Bush administration has left a legacy of numbness - what do you rebel against when, essentially, the establishment just doesn't care what you think?’ I find that a little depressing. The answer is both simple and difficult, of course – you rebel against the establishment. Joyce Carol Oates points the way:
The cultural life of America is a thing quite apart from the federal government. It can flourish, as in the Johnson-Nixon eras, as counter-culture; in times of political debasement, art can be idealistic and ahistorical. Most artists live through a sequence of administrations, and their art evolves in ways too individual to be related to larger, generic forces.

It perhaps takes someone older, someone who has been through all of this before, to see it in context like this. Gore Vidal makes the same sort of point, though, as you might expect from him, with less optimism, when he says, ‘Culture goes on. People go on writing novels even though the general public doesn't want to read them.’ This is essentially saying that culture will evolve, come what may, although he tempers this judgement with an element of artistic optimism: ‘Art is always needed in a country that doesn't much like it. Performance is all anybody cares about.’

Vidal seems to be saying here that the US is sliding into philistinism. Naomi Wolf concurs, comparing it, chillingly, to Weimar Germany:
I've done a lot of work on Germany from the Weimar period to the late 30s. There was a similar hostility then to the cosmopolitan, the urbanite, the avant garde, to any originality in art.

My feeling is that this is going too far. Wolf predicts that a McCain/Palin win would ‘see a crackdown of the police state, there's no doubt,’ Perhaps, and perhaps it is possible to see that a religious right agenda stretched into a further eight years of dominance could become as extreme in its purging of social thought as Nazism in the thirties, but it remains unlikely. At the risk of sounding like the complacent Max in Cabaret, dismissing the Nazis as controllable, the American religious right are less of a threat than most people imagine simply because they have such small minds, incapable of the breadth of understanding required to make the leap into a major political force. (The only caveat, however, is that the credit crunch could change everything: depression and economic deprivation do terrible things to a nation’s psyche.)

Lionel Shriver takes a contrary view to most. Indeed, she is relatively upbeat:
[The Bush years have been great for the arts, restoring a collusive, adversarial climate last seen circa 1968. Hate figures are far more motivating than heroes, and W has graciously provided the collectively leftwing artistic community an embarrassment of riches.

Where DJ Spoony sees numbness, Shriver points to political works such as ‘Michael Moore's mocking Fahrenheit 9/11, Ian McEwan's Saturday, Brian Haw's Iraq-protest-turned-Turner-prize-winner-turned-West-End-play (The State We're In), and David Hare's Stuff Happens.’ She does make the point, however (and with a delightful prick at that ego called JM Coetzee) that it is debatable whether any such work will be of lasting value. This point is picked up by Paul Auster, who observes:
Art isn't journalism. Some of the greatest historical novels were written long after the events discussed in the book. You think of War and Peace, written in 1870 about things that happened in 1812. I think there's this confusion in the minds of the public that artists are supposed to respond immediately to things that are going on. We've been living through a new era. Everyone knows the world has changed, but exactly where the story is taking us is unclear right now and until it plays out further I don't know if anyone has a clear vision of what's happening.

This is an important point. It’s easy to look back at the counter-culture of the sixties and assume that it was an instant revolt against the status quo. It wasn’t. The great Vietnam novels, like those of Tim O’Brien, came much later, and the sixties novels which most famously lampooned Vietnam – Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse 5 – were both about the Second World War. Auster rightly makes the point that you can’t live history and write it at the same time. Context is required, and only time provides that.

Nonetheless, most of the commentators interviewed here detect a lack of something in contemporary cultural responses. Edward Albee sums it up:
There is] no cultural legacy whatever from those eight [Bush] years. It doesn't seem to have produced the kind of rage that I would have expected it to. It shows me that we have a far more passive and ignorant society than I thought we had. The only value the arts have is commercial. I have found over the past eight years that commerce has taken over the arts in the United States.

He makes a final observation, one that I think is fundamental and that must be examined so that we can understand the reasons for it, because it is the single thing that most defines the difference between the counter-culture of the sixties and the pessimism of the noughts: ‘I don't think that the Republican administration could have gotten away with everything that it did had it not had a complacent and compliant society.’

We must ask ourselves: what has made society so complacent, and what can be done to repair that damage? That is the role that the cultural commentators and artists will have in the next few years. And if, as now seems probable, we have an Obama presidency, that may be difficult. As Lionel Shriver points out, the artistic world is largely pro Obama, and yet, ‘Art thrives on resistance. There's nothing more arid, more enervating, more stultifying, or more utterly uninspiring than getting your way.’

Britain saw an element of this at the beginning of the Blair government. Everyone was so relieved to finally have someone in control with a degree of sophistication that he was given too much leeway. We accepted. We didn’t challenge enough. There were still forces at work on society that we didn’t fully apprehend. While we weren’t looking, Blair changed into a completely different person and, by the time we realised, it was too late. The march towards the secret society had begun.

The corollary for American artists? Do your own thing. Think your own thoughts. Whether or not you’re content with your politicians, always remember that they are different from you and represent different interests. They must. Once artists get into bed with politicians, as we do know from 1930s Germany, all is lost.

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